Yehuda Wengrofsky
Yehuda Wengrofsky

Ross ‘The Boss’ tells American Jews to get tough

Before the covid crisis, there was a vast increase in hate-crimes against American Jews, which, if set against a broader landscape of growing demonization in American politics and outright persecution in academia, makes me wonder what its Jewish community can expect after the immediate joys of releasing society from house arrest.  If attacks resume, will the (now underfunded and undermined) police be able or willing to help?  At what point will the media take note and how might they frame the action?  How much more late and ineffectual will Jewish civil rights organizations be this time?  What can we do now?

For some perspective and advice for the American Jewish community at this tender moment, I consulted with Ross “The Boss” Friedman, lead guitarist of The Dictators, the legendary punk rock pioneers, whose origins date back to New York City’s violent days in the early 1970s.  Unlike other acts from that time and place — Blondie, The Ramones, Talking Heads, etc. — The Dictators were entirely Jewish, working-class, and native sons of The Bronx.  Ross has since gone on to also sling guitars for Shakin’ Street (with Fabienne Shine), Manowar, Deathdealer, the Heavy Metal All-Stars, The Ross the Boss Band, and he’s come full circle as the nucleus of the latest manifestation of The Dictators.  Oh, and in case you are wondering, Ross’s “Boss” nickname pre-dated Bruce Springsteen’s adaptation of a similar moniker.

In a galaxy awash with slick guitar heroes surfing the latest musical trend, Ross’s playing was punk before punk and metal before metal.  And like Eddie Van Halen and Ritchie Blackmore, his musical architecture is rooted in European classicism.  Each guitar solo has a narrative arc that builds and releases tension, with each note — regardless how fast — fully articulated with the precision of a European tailor.

Can you tell us about your Jewish heritage?

Ross “The Boss” Friedman: My father’s side came from the Austro-Hungarian empire in, like, 1908.  My father’s family who stayed in Europe were destroyed in concentration camps. As a kid, the reality of the Holocaust hit me. As a refugee from Europe, grandpa decided that the family would speak English, not Hungarian, so I never learned any Hungarian – not even a little bit.

Grandpa was a tough, little guy.  When he first came to America, he became a boxer, like a lot of those guys. Then he became a tailor and settled down on the Grand Concourse in The Bronx.  In fact, he was such a famous tailor that he was hired by Jimmy Walker, then mayor of New York, who was well-known for flamboyant suits. The two were so close my dad was named John Walker Friedman and Jimmy Walker came to his bar mitzvah, which was a big deal.

I was born on Gun Hill Road in the North Bronx by the 4 Train, which goes to Yankee Stadium, then moved to Sedgwick Avenue, and I went to Clinton High School.

I went to Hebrew School at the Jacob Schiff Center on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx for four years leading up to my bar mitzvah. I can remember my Haftorah in Hebrew if I look at it long enough. Whenever I hear Hebrew, like on Passover, I can understand it.

Did you face much hostility to Jews as a child?

Ross “The Boss” Friedman: Where I grew up, there was always a bunch of Irish kids that were always freaking screaming anti-Jewish stuff at us, whatever their families taught them. I always, always, had problems with them, especially on Halloween. “New York Jew” is a title for people who grew up in the City, on the streets and school yards, where you’ve got to be a fighter – as much or more now as back then. It’s a different way of growing up.

How did you get your musical education?

Ross “The Boss” Friedman: Music was always a part of my childhood. My father’s brother [Louis Menard] had studied opera at La Scala in Italy. I heard him sing.  He never really made it but, he had records.

When I was seven, I began to learn piano at a music school on Allerton Avenue in the Bronx. I took to it immediately, learning both hands – bass clef, treble clef – as well as music theory.  I played like a champ, learning everything.  My mother was told that I had had the highest musical aptitude in the school.  But my family thought that music was good to know, but not a career. I was supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a dentist, but I rebelled.  My family was never supportive of me — even though The Dictators signed to Columbia-CBS when we were 19!  It didn’t matter.  They wanted me to go to college instead.

At the baseball batting cage I run in Queens, kids come in from all over.  Music and athletics reach a part of your brain that normal schooling can’t.  It’s necessary to practice if you want to get anywhere. You learn to push yourself.  Practice builds discipline and humility; and playing with others teaches teamwork.

What’s your take on what’s happening in New York City?

Ross “The Boss” Friedman: New York City is going to hell in a handbasket right now. Under the worst duo in in American political history – DeBlasio and Andrew Cuomo – the middle-class has fled to the suburbs and countryside. Once you defund the police by a billion dollars, they can’t respond to every call. During a so-called curfew, the mayor allowed people to destroy businesses (including Macy’s) and set fire to police cars; but made a point of singling out Jews who gathered for a burial or a wedding.

Curtis Sliwa, if he runs and is elected, could, over time, re-gain the confidence of police and business owners. Even the batting cage I own was vandalized. Why? The courts need to start protecting people by holding violent thugs for bail and sending them to jail, if convicted. We can’t have a society if we allow groups like Antifa to destroy businesses. Instead, Democratic politicians, like President Biden and DeBlasio, pretend that Antifa doesn’t exist. They tell us to look away.

What does this mean for the Jewish community?

Ross “The Boss” Friedman: Hating Jews is on the rise in America; in the schools, in media, and in politics.  American Jews need to start learning how to defend ourselves because nobody’s going to defend us.  I’m not saying go out and get guns, because you can’t get them in New York. They make it impossible for hard-working New Yorkers to defend themselves. We need to train people in their 20s and 30s, so criminals and haters will know that we will fight back. As the founder and leader of The Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa would be the perfect mayor.  Let’s hope everything gets back to normal soon, so we can rock and party again.

Have you ever performed in Israel?

Ross “The Boss” Friedman: About ten years ago, with The Metal All-Stars — me, Zakk Wylde, Joey Belladonna, etc. — I played a show in Tel Aviv, which was deeply satisfying. Roger Waters and other haters can bite it. G-d bless the sacred State of Israel and prime minister Netanyahu.

Ross The Boss wants you to know that The Dictators are back with a new single, and soon, a new full-length LP, their first in twenty years. Check out these websites for the latest information:

About the Author
Yehuda Wengrofsky is Editor-at-Large at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) in New York City. Wengrofsky's edited volume of the writings of the late Professor Irving Block on the mysticism of Aristotle is under review by the University of Toronto Press. He scribbles, noshes, and davens in the historic Lower East Side of New York City, where his family has lived for over a century.
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